Pitino's son: From assistant to grief counselor

Updated: September 20, 2006, 8:55 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

At 6:45 Sunday morning, Richard Pitino heard someone pounding on the door of his Pittsburgh townhome.

"I don't think anything can prepare you for something like this"
-- Richard Pitino, Duquesne assistant coach
The Duquesne assistant basketball coach turned 24 just the day before, and his mom, Joanne, had flown in from Louisville to celebrate with her son. Richard's first thought was that his mom had gotten up early and gone for a walk, and now she was locked out.

"But my mom wouldn't pound on the door like that," Richard said.

He opened the door and was greeted by a frantic Anthony Serro, the Dukes' director of basketball operations. Pitino had turned off his cell phone, so Serro rushed over in person bearing nightmarish news.

Five players had been shot, at least one of them critically, after an argument at a school dance. Before he even knew what was happening, Pitino was in Serro's car, smashing the speed limit to the hospital.

By the time he got there, Richard Pitino's job description had changed. Literally overnight, he was transformed from a young assistant coach just learning the business into a grief counselor, confidant and commiserator in a life-and-death crisis.

"I don't think anything can prepare you for something like this," Pitino said.

Certainly nothing taught at a coaching clinic. But being a Pitino has helped, in a hard way.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Tuesday night that he's been on the phone "six or seven times a day" this week with the third of his five children, simply offering support more than any advice. They have a sad wealth of experience when it comes to dealing with dire circumstance.

Tragedy has touched the Pitino family with cruel frequency in Richard's lifetime. Richard lost a younger brother, Daniel, not long after Daniel's birth in 1987. He lost an uncle, Don Vogt, when Don was hit by a taxi in 2001. And he lost another uncle, Billy Minardi, in the terror attack on the World Trade Center.

"Unfortunately, as well as fortunately, he's dealt with so many tragedies," Rick Pitino said of his son. "He knows what's important and unimportant. He knows how important it is to stay close to those families, and to help them any way he can."

Richard has tried to apply some experiences from those heartaches this week at Duquesne. Like the rest of the staff, he's almost lived at Mercy Hospital, where most of the players were treated.

But life goes on outside the hospital. And Richard Pitino hopes that a significant balm was applied Wednesday, when the Dukes held individual instruction for the first time since the shootings.

"One thing I guess I did learn, going through that, is that it can help to use basketball as a distraction," Pitino said. "That court's got to be our sanctuary. We need to start working as a basketball team together."

Forging togetherness figured to be the most difficult task facing the new basketball staff at Duquesne. Ron Everhart was hired in the spring to replace Danny Nee, whose final season was a 3-24 collapse. Everhart brought Pitino with him from Northeastern.

An overshadowed Atlantic 10 Conference school in Pittsburgh, Duquesne is nobody's idea of a basketball mecca. But it held more promise than Northeastern, a Boston commuter school that didn't bring cheerleaders or a band -- and precious few fans -- to the 2006 Colonial Athletic Association tournament. So Everhart jumped, and Pitino followed.

Everhart and his staff quickly assembled an intriguing but disparate hodgepodge of players for this upcoming season -- transfers, juco guys and freshmen from all over the map. There are 10 scholarship newcomers, hailing from Colombia to Canada, plus two four-year transfers who will sit out this season. Just two holdovers from last year remain.

But a near-universal newness can work for a group of strangers as well. On a team with no pre-established cliques, everyone was in this chemistry experiment together. Pitino said he saw promising signs early this semester that it was working out.

"They were always together," he said. "Even Saturday night, they were doing what was told: Stay on campus, stay together."

Tragically, staying together meant coming under fire together. Police have charged two men in the shootings, and accused a woman of helping six men into the school dance despite knowing that they were armed.

Sam Ashaolu remains in critical condition, with two bullets lodged in his head. Teammate Stuard Baldonado had a bullet that narrowly missed his spinal cord removed from his back. The other three injured players were treated and released.

Two of those injured, transfers Kojo Mensah and Shawn James, attended a team meeting Tuesday. The meeting was the first formal step toward pulling together a shattered team.

"I believe we're all, as a staff, getting closer from going through this," Richard Pitino said. "Things have been tough, no question about it. But we've gotten great leadership from our AD, Mr. [Greg] Amodio, and Coach Everhart. They've done a fantastic job of handling this. And our president [Dr. Charles Dougherty] spoke at a vigil Tuesday night, and he was tremendous as well. We're just trying to follow their lead."

Richard Pitino also can follow the lead of his father, a man who has never seen a half-empty glass in his life. The son sounds like he has a similar optimism within.

"There's been so many heroes in this whole thing -- our players saving other players' lives -- that it's been amazing," he said. "We're all just helping each other.

"I think we're all going to get through it. We just have to stay positive and say our prayers."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.